A letter from an attorney was awaiting me in the mailbox one February day. The shock and surprise has yet to wear off.
I’ve probably written half a dozen stories about farm succession and planning for the future as related to agriculture. I’ve given farmers and ranchers ideas to make the transition from one generation to the next easier. I’ve given tips and resources for them to use.
Do you think I’ve had those tough conversations with my own families? Do you think we had a plan? Nope. My Dad died March 1, and he had a will and left a handwritten note with the wishes for his funeral.
My father-in-law died unexpectedly 5 and half years ago. He didn’t have a will or specific wishes for a funeral, but my husband did know his Dad wanted to be buried on his farm. A place where he’d spent nearly his whole life.
Because of that letter from an attorney, the family is divided, the land has been split and the farm property has been sold. What was once a century family farm is no more.
Since February, I’ve asked “Why?” at least once a day, sometimes many more. People I tell the story to can’t believe family would treat family this way. But we’ve learned from this experience and grown. My husband and I communicate better and are closer. We have our own ranch plans now, and will only have each other to answer to and the bank.
Here’s 5 things I’ve learned since that letter from an attorney showed up in my mailbox.
1. Trust no one.
2. Communicate and write it down.
3. Do it yourself.
4. Don’t work for family or friends.
5. Find an impartial third party to help make decisions.
Trust. You might think your neighbors who have been there through thick and thin will be there when circumstances change. Think again. They’re looking out for number one, and that’s not you. Same goes for family.
Communicate your ideas, thoughts, goals and wishes to your family, partner or hired hand. If things don’t go the way you intend, keep after it. If you don’t like the way something is going, ask for a pause and work it out. Don’t just stop talking. These tough conversations about land, taxes and money need to be had—had before it ends up costing more money and relationships. Write down goals and intentions. Document, document, document.
Don’t work for family or friends. I might be heartless in even suggesting this, but after the mess we’ve been through, I can’t help but feel this way. Family can (and will) cut you down quickly and stick the knife right where it hurts because they know your vulnerabilities. Keep your friends close and enemies closer.
If you’re at an impasse about what to do with the farm or ranch, have an impartial third party come into help. It may cost money, but they can (and will) crunch the numbers for you, give you advice and point you in the right direction. They don’t care if the barn has been in the family for 100 years or if inheritance is not ideal. They’re looking to the future without clouded perspectives. Kansas Agricultural Mediation Service is one such example of an impartial third party.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if you would have told me 5 and half years ago this is how things would end up, I wouldn’t have believed you. I’m writing this piece not for sympathy or to damage reputations. I’m writing this because if one single person gets something out of it and avoids the pain and heartbreak we have been through, then I’ve succeeded.
Communicate. Plan. Discuss. Avoiding the tough conversation of who “gets the farm or ranch” won’t solve anything. Everything comes at a price. An open, honest conversation costs nothing.